For her first feature script, Joanne Sarazen (I Came Here Alone) nails the endless pain and difficulty of a parental toxic relationship: the way the parent, an incubus born of weaponized love, cycles through terrible behavior after terrible behavior, pulling the child, so that the parent is never left alone, into the loop again and again to the point where the child is barely able to recognize a healthy relationship. Paired with superb direction from second-time feature director Amy Jo Johnson (The Space Between), familial drama Tammy’s Always Dying is a painful reminder that we can’t always save the ones we love, and that the ones we love can’t be saved.
Catherine McDonald (Anastasia Phillips) dreams of a life bigger than her tiny apartment. She dreams of a new car, a new job, a life outside of her hometown outside the city. Mostly, she wants to be free of her chaotic mother’s constant pull for attention and affirmation that always gets worse at the end of the month when her money runs out. When Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is diagnosed with cancer, a strange sense of calm enters Cathy’s life, a sense of an end to the constant attention-seeking behavior. The question becomes: even in death, is Cathy ever really free from her mother’s emotional tether?
If you’ve ever experienced the pain of a toxic relationship, Tammy’s Always Dying will be a hard, yet cathartic watch. Whatever the outcome for Cathy, you’ll feel a sense of kinship, a notion that you’re not alone in your struggle. Part of this is in Sarazen’s script, which doesn’t bloviate or condescend to the audience. The other is in Johnson’s direction, capturing, without judgement, the complicated mother-daughter relationship. In the opening sequence, the camera follows the footsteps of a heeled individual walking across a bridge, only to stop, using the fence to remove their shoes as they climb it. Once atop it, the camera shifts to someone in a car, the only view of their face either from the side or through the rearview. Before the audience knows who is who and what they mean to each other, Sarazen and Johnson give us enough to know that this is a serious scene not to be taken seriously. The song “Boomerang” by Claire Maguire belts out lyrics about bad choices and coming back to do it again, Cathy never appears in any kind of worried haste, and Tammy is comfortable in her spot on the bridge. Even the title card, fading into the scene in a warm pink, is tilted along the line of the bridge, unable to just go across, seemingly caught in same chaotic construct as Cathy. In this one scene, Sarazen and Johnson capture the chaos and the comfort that comes from the cyclical nature of a toxic relationship. Tammy knows that Cathy will come, Cathy knows that Tammy won’t jump, and with every breath between them, Tammy will ensure that Cathy knows how they cannot be without the other.
Though this is Johnson’s second feature, her deftness is that of someone with far more time behind the camera. In examining the opening scene, you see a director who knows how to handle the themes of her film in the same beats as the action. It doesn’t matter to the audience who is walking the bridge, we don’t see Tammy properly until after Cathy is up there with her, it only matters that we see someone fairly casually climb up to the rail. It showcases someone who’s done this before, perhaps even routinely. Even before arriving, Johnson communicates Cathy’s tether to the past by placing the camera in such a way inside Cathy’s car that the audience primarily sees her in the rearview. It’s a shot Johnson returns to routinely when shooting Cathy driving, a way of making physical Cathy’s constant looking backward and not forward. That she, herself, is locked into the same spiral of pain that keeps Tammy climbing that bridge like clockwork at the end of every month. The confirmation of pathology arrives when Cathy is fully introduced. She is utterly unphased by the sight of Tammy sitting a perch on the bridge rail, even pausing to contemplate the situation with her cigarette before going to speak. An introduction should always set the stage for what’s the come — narratively, thematically, etc. — and Johnson tells us everything we need within a few scant minutes and no dialogue. There is such specific camera placement, evident by what the images communicate, that right from the beginning the audience can clearly see the story is in good hands.
While Tammy has several characters fleshing out the internal story (a doctor, a bartender, regular customers where Cathy works, and an old flame from high school played by Aaron Ashmore (Smallville)), the bulk of the story centers on Tammy, Cathy, and their mutual friend Doug, played by Clark Johnson (Brawl in Cell Block 99). Huffman’s performance here is perhaps some of her best. There’s nary a trace of anything audiences are familiar with from anything she’s done prior, and she is, at times, completely withdrawn into the character. Those who have been touched by a toxic family member will recognize the behaviors of someone who is outwardly the life of the party and is a Tyrannosaurus rex with the interpersonal relationships with those closest to them. Huffman conveys Tammy’s recognition that she desires to be a better mother while also being angry that she’s an alcoholic and an addict incapable of doing anything or being there for anyone who isn’t herself. Despite steadily working since 2005, this is this reviewer’s first time seeing Phillips and she’s a performer to watch. Phillips’s performance embodies the desperation to return to something simpler while also working hopelessly to escape the present. Cathy keeps her dreams secret because sharing them with Tammy runs the risk of rebuke, even though Cathy knows that Tammy’s venom comes from a place of personal abhorrence and failure. Even as Cathy makes a few bad decisions of her own (look at her barometer for healthy choices), Phillips’s honest approach never makes Cathy seem like a bad person. Even with the addition of a bottom-feeding, emotional succubus in the form of television producer Ilana Wiseman (Lauren Holly), Phillips maintains Cathy’s purity. If you were tied and bound to someone who made every breath lead to misery and pain, what would you do to escape? That question is partially answered by way of Doug, the only person in the entire film whose presence seems to quell the darker nature of Tammy and soothe Cathy. Thankfully, Doug is never used as a means of exposition dumping. This does frustrate sometimes as the audience is left to fend for themselves to figure out relationships, but what we are given via performance from Clark Johnson is one of perpetual sweetness, patience, and understanding.
Though there are comedic elements which lighten the tone of Tammy’s Always Dying and the script never stoops to overly sensationalizing either the mother-daughter relationship or the events which surround them, the film in total is no less cutting or devastating. Johnson captures, as impartially as possible, how one does not need to have been punched to carry bruises or and not all cuts require stitches. These are truly devastating realizations, especially for those who have never experienced it themselves: that persistent questioning of self-worth brought on by their loved-one’s heavy-handed comment or the lowering of personal goals after years of being told that your victories belong to them. Tammy may always be dying, but that doesn’t mean she’s the only one.
Available on VOD beginning May 1st, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.